"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

At Gunpoint (AA, 1955)


Fred does what a man's gotta do




 
 

Fred MacMurray (left) never really liked Westerns. He once said, "The horse and I were never as one". He was nevertheless very good in oaters, I think, especially if the role required a decent but tough hombre called to duty. And he did quite a lot of them, thirteen in fact, from The Texas Rangers in 1936 to The Oregon Trail in 1959. One of my favorite Fred Westerns was a 1955 Allied Artists effort, At Gunpoint. It is an absolutely classic treatment of that theme so central to the genre, that a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. And Fred was ideally cast as the ordinary fellow who may be scared but knows what's right and so he grits his teeth and does it. Fans of 50s Westerns (and I guess that's you, e-pards) definitely need to see this movie.

At Gunpoint was directed by Alfred L Werker (right), a Hollywood vet who went right back to the silent days (he had been part of the crew on Fred Thomson silent Westerns, including the 1927 Jesse James) when he often worked with Lloyd Ingraham (he was Lloyd’s co-Werker, you might say). Mr. Werher had an enormous headstart in life by being born in Deadwood, SD in 1896. Stuart Gilmore, director of the Joel McCrea The Virginian, was born in Tombstone. Dennis Hopper was born in Dodge. These people might be thought to have an unfair advantage in life. Forget silver spoons, this is like being born with a silver Colt in your holster, don't you think? Anyway, Alfred had been at Paramount but later descended to lesser studios and got a rep as a gun-for-hire director, finishing pictures when other directors were fired or got sick. But he was capable of good stuff, like The Last Posse or Three Hours to Kill (both yet to be reviewed) and he did an excellent job on At Gunpoint.

It was written by ultra-experienced Daniel B Ullman, who bashed out screenplays for B-Westerns for years and years, and very competently too.

Allied Artists pushed the budgetary boat out on the picture. Although it is almost entirely set in town (the nice Western town set AA used) they shot in in Technicolor and CinemaScope, and not only did they get Fred on loan-out from Paramount, they hired a host of really good character actors to back him up.
 
Wide screen color
 
It opens before the titles with outlaw Skip Homeier practicing for the next hold-up with an empty gun, dramatic Carmen Dragon music in the background. (And what a great name Carmen Dragon had). Of course all of us Westernistas know Skip Homeier. Ever since shooting Gregory Peck in the back in The Gunfighter in 1950 he had specialized in sniveling punk kid roles. Dawn at Socorro, Ten Wanted Men, whenever they wanted a punk kid, they called Skip. By 1955 he was growing out of punk kid roles and was just doing punks. He is ideal as the psychopathic killer in At Gunpoint.
 
Skip great as punk outlaw
 
The great Jack Lambert, another superb Western bad guy, is also in Skip's gang. Well, they decide to rob the bank of the small town of Plainview, Texas, and duly do so, while manager John Qualen looks fearfully on. You just know Skip is going to shoot someone and sure enough, he drills the teller (Byron Foulger). But as the robbers are high-tailing it out of town, having gunned down the elderly marshal (Harry Shannon) in the street before he could even get a shot off, storekeeper Fred emerges, grabs the fallen marshal’s six-shooter and with a really lucky shot gets the outlaw carrying the money, Skip’s brother (John Pickard). Townsman Frank Ferguson picks up his rifle and finishes the fellow off. The rest of the gang get away but Fred ‘n’ Frank are the heroes of the hour.
 
Storekeeper Fred gets off a lucky shot
 
We meet other characters. Walter Brennan is the cranky old doc, Fred’s friend. Beautiful Dorothy Malone is Fred’s wife Martha (she did two Westerns with him). Lassie boy Tommy Retting is their son Bill. I told you, it’s a good cast. Whit Bissell and Irving Bacon are tremulous townsmen. Harry Lauter is the federal marshal who drops by to investigate the crime (but soon unfortunately departs). James Griffith is a drifter who calls in to the saloon.
 
Doc Brennan and Fred, happy before the trouble starts
 
Storekeeper Fred is very well liked. He gives candy to the kids and is a loving father and husband. However, once they realize that the gang is hell-bent on avenging their fallen member, and wish to wreak especial revenge on Frank ‘n’ Fred, the townsfolk go all pusillanimous, as townspeople in Westerns are wont to do. It was three years on from High Noon, so everyone was used to this. And then Frank Ferguson is ambushed on the way home and murdered, so they all (except Doc Brennan) find reasons for not backing Fred up. Standing next to Fred would be a dangerous place to be right now. They shun his store, they shun him, they even shun his wife and boy.
 
Loving couple
 
Skip, in his cowardly and punkish way, shoots Martha’s brother Wally, who helps in the store (James O’Hara) through the door, mistaking him for Fred. The townsmen hold a meeting inviting Fred to pack up and leave. Even Dorothy wants to go. But Fred makes a noble speech, telling them that a man’s gotta do etc. And anyway, that would be un-American.

The climax nears, as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (well, the outlaws, anyway) ride down the street as Fred stands alone with a pistol that he doesn’t really know how to use…
 
Here they come...

I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler to tell you that the bad guys do not win. In fact Doc shoots Skip with his shotgun. Skip is on a wire and is yanked pretty sharply off his horse to the dust. Or his stuntman double is anyway. There’s a sweet shot of the triangular, or rather heart-shaped tableau vivant of Fred, Dorothy and Tommy as we all understand that they will live happily ever after.

Fred is really good in this as the ordinary-Joe general store man who stands up tall when the going gets rough. And the rest of the acting is pretty classy too. The idea of the non-professional citizen facing down the experienced gunmen bad guys was not new and it would be done again of course (3:10 to Yuma two years later is a good example). Indeed, there is little particularly original about this picture. But it’s very well done. Full marks to cast and crew.



 

 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Star in the Dust (Universal, 1956)


Richard Boone awaits the rope




 
 
John Agar (left) first appeared in Westerns for John Ford in Fort Apache in 1948, with his wife Shirley Temple, and returned in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon the year after. So it as a five-star Western debut. After that he was rather miscast as one of Kirk Douglas’s deputies in Along the Great Divide in 1951 and had secondary roles in a Republic Rod Cameron picture, Woman of the North Country, in ‘52 and an independent B-movie, The Lonesome Trail, in ’55. So he had some background in the genre. Star in the Dust, a reasonably well budgeted Technicolor offering from Universal, was his first Western as lead. He was OK, I guess.
                                                                                                                  
It’s not quite clear why it’s called that. Agar is a sheriff but never throws down the badge, High Noon-style. I guess it was just a snappy name.

It’s a very Tom Horn-ish story. The Horn figure is Sam Hall (Richard Boone, in rather dudish Have-Gun black with dashing red kerchief) and Sheriff Agar is holding him in a cell waiting for sundown, the hour appointed by the judge for the hanging – for he has been convicted of murdering three farmers, including a boy, the Willie Nickell figure, obviously. The rich cattlemen hired him to kill homesteaders to dissuade others from settling on ‘their’ open range.
 
Killer Hall gets lover Nellie to help him escape
 
The town is split into two camps, both armed and ready to ride. Leif Erikson is the ruthless boss of the ranchers, with Harry Morgan as his pugnacious lieutenant, and the farmers are led by decent Stanley Andrews, with unpleasant schoolmaster Robert Osterloh as their spokesman. The ranchers want to bust Hall out of jail and get him out of the country while the farmers want to break into the jail and lynch him. The sheriff is piggy in the middle.

Paul Fix is Agar’s deputy, so that’s good. There’s also a semi-comic old-timer (James Gleason) who builds the gallows and becomes another deputy, and he turns out to be more resourceful than first imagined. So the sheriff is well supported.

This was Clint Eastwood’s first Western and he has a walk-on two-line part in the first reel as a cowpoke.
 
Clint's debut
 
There are dames, of course. The sheriff loves Leif’s sister Ellen (glam blonde Mamie Van Doren) but she appears conflicted in her loyalties. And Harry Morgan’s wife Nan (Randy Stuart) used to be Leif’s lover and she agrees to help smuggle a gun to Hall. Later she realizes she has been duped. Then there’s Nellie (Coleen Gray) who has fallen for Hall. Actually, to be fair, these characters are quite strongly delineated, and Ms. Stuart anyway rather good.
 
Randy is good
 
It’s all a bit cliché-ridden, to be honest. At one point Fix says, “Sure is quiet” and later Agar says, “Too quiet”. Original it ain’t. The writer was Oscar Brodeny, from a Lee Leighton novel. Brodney had worked on the screenplays of Harvey and The Glenn Miller Story and did some Westerns, notably Frenchie.

There’s a minstrel who sings a running commentary which rapidly becomes annoying. It’s Terry Gilkyson, and I’m afraid his ditty is pretty banal but he wrote Bare Necessities for The Jungle Book, so we forgive him, for Bare Necessities is of course the greatest song ever written in human history.
 
Gets a bit annoying
 
There’s an attempt at psychological Western with Agar constantly being reminded of how good a sheriff his dad was. That isn’t original either. Agar wasn’t exactly charismatic as an actor but in a way the role required that. He is supposed to be “not the man his father was.”
 
Sheriff Agar, not the man his dad was
 
It’s shot in Universal’s attractive Western town (you’ll recognize it from countless other oaters) and the color is bright and print-quality good.

The gallows is burned down (good) but it doesn’t save Boone, for an oak tree stands handy. There’s a melodramatic ending on a rooftop.
 
The end is nigh
 
The director was Charles Haas who had been an extra at Universal, promoted to assistant director, and produced and wrote various pictures, several with Marilyn-wannabe Van Doren. This was only his second picture in the director’s chair, and first Western.
 
Haas
 
Boone was reliably good. In this he reminds me a bit of Claude Akins in jail in Rio Bravo. Agar is no Sheriff John Wayne, though (actually, Wayne liked Agar and gave him parts in several of his later Westerns).

But all in all the picture is a bit average. It’s pleasant enough, and the acting passable. I hesitated between a two- and three-revolver rating, and may have been a bit mean. I liked the bit where the sheriff beats up the schoolmaster, wrecking the schoolroom to the delight of the kids, then fines himself for disorderly conduct.


 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Showdown at Boot Hill (Fox, 1958)


Bronson gets his first lead role




 
 
Charles Bronson appeared in big-screen Westerns from 1954, getting small-to-middling parts in pictures such as Vera Cruz, Apache and Drum Beat. His first Western lead role, though (and indeed his last until the 1970s) was Showdown at Boot Hill, a rather dull 1958 black & white B-picture made by Regal Films and released by Fox. Regal was a minor producer of low-budget B-Westerns and sci-fi flicks in the 1950s, owned or part-owned by Fox.

 
The title had a touch of the lurid about it, as well as being inaccurate because the eponymous final fight at the cemetery turns out not to happen.

The picture was directed by Gene Fowler Jr (left), a former editor whose first movie as director this was. He is best known for such marvels as I Was a Teenage Werewolf and I Married a Monster from Outer Space. He mostly did TV work, though the following year he would direct Fred MacMurray in the big-screen The Oregon Trail (to be reviewed at some point).

The writer was Louis Vittes, who also did mostly TV scripts but occasionally rode out on the big screen (this was his second feature Western). Unfortunately, between them Fowler and Vittes cooked up a picture that is (I think) supposed to be profound but succeeds only in being pretentious.

Bronson (right) is Deputy US Marshal Luke Welsh, arrived in a small Kansas town to find and bring back to justice a certain Con Maynor (Thomas Browne Henry) who is wanted for three murders. He finds his man and shows his warrant but Maynor shoots it out in the hotel and Welsh kills him. For some reason, the townspeople set themselves against the lawman and do everything they can to thwart him. Their main ambition seems to be to deny him the two hundred dollars reward for Maynor and their tactic is to refuse to identify the dead man.

Certain elements of the townsfolk even decide to kill the marshal, although why they should be so against him and wish to defend a murderer is never made clear. They know the dead man’s brother (George Douglas) as he is a local rancher but they hardly knew Con, yet seem to want to do everything to defend his name and avenge him. It’s all rather implausible.
 
The US marshal with a height complex
 
Welsh has a photograph taken of the corpse which should do as an ID and get him the reward when gets back to St Louis but the townsmen shoot up the photographer’s studio, busting the plate and the camera, so that scheme is a flop.

The leading townsman is John Carradine, who combines the professions of doctor, barber, undertaker and preacher. He is given some dialogue so portentous as to be downright silly, such as, “There's a Boot Hill in every man's soul”, which of course there isn’t.
 
Carradine, exercising one of many of his professions
 
Welsh is supposed to be obsessed with his shortness. While Bronson does indeed look diminutive alongside the top-hatted Carradine (who was six foot even without the stove-pipe) he wasn’t that small (he was 5’8” or 1.74m) so this idea doesn’t work too well. Anyway, quite frankly, who cares? Welsh explains that being so short, bounty-hunting was the only career open to him. Right. His new girlfriend Sally (Fintan Meyler) tells him an undeniable truth: “No matter how many men you kill, it will not make you an inch taller.” He can’t have been very bright if he hadn’t thought of that.

Sally is the virtuous but ashamed daughter of the town whore Jill (Carole Mathews) and she waitresses in the hotel, living an austere and joyless life. I think she is supposed to recognize a kindred spirit in Welsh. They fall in love. Jill has a gambler-gunman lover (Mike Mason) who also unaccountably takes against Welsh (Why? I think we should be told) and tries to gun him down in a saloon but Welsh is too fast for him and he falls wounded. Later he manages to shoot his own lover with a shotgun. Doh.
 
Lerve
 
Finally Welsh attends the funeral of Con at Boot Hill, gunless, thus showing his manhood or something. There is a damp-squib ‘showdown’ and Welsh and Sally fall into each other’s arms to live HEA.

Yawn.

One good thing: Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales has a walk-on part with his burro.

Showdown at Boot Hill aims to be a tense psychological Western and ends up looking like an overwritten episode of some TV show. I suppose it has a certain offbeat/rarity interest, and Bronsonistas might like to see it but myself I never thought Mr. Bronson much of an actor, certainly not in Westerns anyway, and I’d say that the film is skippable.



 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

The Hard Man (Columbia, 1957)


A good George Sherman Western




 
 
Commenting recently on a post about Guy Madison’s first Western, Massacre River, reader Bart recommended The Hard Man, a later Madison effort. It’s quite a rare film (for example it never got a theater release in France) but it is available on a Sidonis DVD. Sidonis have annoying subtitles you can’t turn off and furthermore you can’t search the catalogue by title – you have to know the French name of the movie - but the picture quality is excellent and they do choose some rarer Westerns, often quite good ones that have been overlooked. Anyway, I ordered it and watched it last night.

Madison had found Western fame in the long-running TV show Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, in which he and his portly sidekick Jingles (Andy Devine) roamed the West doing good, as TV Western heroes were wont to do. It ran pretty well all through the 1950s. But the big-screen oaters he occasionally did between Hickok seasons were grittier and more adult. He’d led in the Gordon Douglas-directed The Charge at Feather River (to be reviewed soon) in 1953, and Warners’ The Command in ’54. More importantly, he was second-billed in The Last Frontier in ’55, directed by Anthony Mann. In 1956 came Reprisal!, directed by George Sherman.

The diminutive Sherman (right) began his career in the movie business in the mail room at Warner Brothers before working his way up to assistant director. By 1937 he had graduated to directing in his own right at Republic. He specialized in B-Westerns there, including the Three Mesquiteers series, with a young John Wayne. Variety, writing about his handling of the series, even commented on his imparting a "poetry in motion" to his "unified timing of cowboys mounting, riding, wheeling, galloping and dismounting of steeds", which was probably a bit over the top, but he was a pro who knew his business. And just occasionally he turned out a really solid picture, like Comanche with Dana Andrews, Hell Bent for Leather with Audie Murphy and (especially good) Dawn at Socorro with Rory Calhoun. B-Westerns by many people’s standards (it depends on your definition of a B-Western) some of his pictures were taut, well-written, acted and photographed, and noticeably well directed. The Hard Man is one such.

Madison was not perhaps the strongest of Western leads. He did best in roles where he was an ordinary Joe who has to step up to the plate when the going gets tough. In this one, though, he is Texas Ranger Steve Burden, with a rep for not bothering about the …or alive part in WANTED posters. In the first scene, very reminiscent of the opening of Warners’ Seven Men from Now of the year before, Burden comes up on his quarry (Myron Healy), and, though reluctant, nevertheless shoots him dead. The Ranger captain (Francis De Sales) doesn’t approve and is happy to accept his resignation but a visiting sheriff (Robert Burton) thinks that here is the guy (or Guy) he needs. The sheriff is aging and has lost his willingness to brace dangerous gunmen. He believes Burden will do that for him. As Burden thinks the man he shot was framed back at the sheriff’s town and may have been innocent, he takes the job of deputy – in effect, hired gun – in order to find out.
 
He's the Guy
 
The rest of the tale is a tense town drama whose central figure is a woman. Valerie French had been Mae in the Delmer Daves-directed Jubal the year before and there are definite similarities between Mae and Fern, the part she plays in The Hard Man, a manipulative, ruthless rancher’s wife. The movie could almost have been called The Hard Woman. Her husband is the town boss but she is ready to make up to any man who will kill him so that she may inherit. Because she is beautiful and seductive, several men fall for her wiles. She also reminds me of Connie in Ramrod – the glacial Veronica Lake.
 
The Hard Woman
 
The husband, Rice Martin, is very well played by Lorne Greene. He is no decent Ponderosa patriarch here, but a really unpleasant crooked rich man ready to resort to murder to get his way. The part would have suited Lyle Bettger or David Brian, or a shade earlier Victor Jory. But Greene does it very well.
 
Bad guy Lorne
 
Well, hard man Guy does his job – all too well. The sheriff begins to have qualms when the man he has hired faces down and kills Martin’s henchman Rodman (Rudy Bond, quite good as tough guy who likes killing). But we know Guy isn’t really just a bloodthirsty hired gun because he is nice to a boy (Rickie Sorensen), son of a rancher being forced out by grasping Martin. When Martin’s men murder the father, Guy unofficially adopts the lad. Of course no one who is kind to animals or children in the first reel can be bad.
 
The aging sheriff, orphan boy and protective deputy
 
Trevor Bardette is good as Willis, the alcoholic spy in town of Martin, and Frank Richards adequate as the other henchman, Kane. George Dennison (Barry Atwater) is the smoothie lawyer retained by Martin and doing his nefarious bidding while secretly romancing his wife – a dangerous game. Martin disposes of him pretty ruthlessly.
 
The henchman about to be broken by the lawman
 
Sherman has some good touches, for example first building up Fern’s reputation (mention of her name silences conversation), delaying her entrance and then showing her hidden in shadow. It’s well done. I also liked the many references to time: at one point Guy kills time by shooting a High Noonish clock.

The climax is also very well handled (Sherman was good at that) when Martin hires in another thug to shoot down the deputy. Guy knows the man is in town but doesn’t know who it is. We too don’t know, though finally suspect when we only see the man’s chaps-clad legs – again the figure is at first hidden. At last we suddenly see he is wearing an eyepatch, and we have been told that the hired killer had a patch. Martin is thus left to face the deputy one on one, as Guy always told him he would. And there is a clever trick with Martin’s pistol.

This is a good Western. It might have been better with a slightly stronger lead, Rory Calhoun, say. But Madison isn’t bad. And the whole picture is skillfully crafted.



 

 

Monday, July 17, 2017

Ride Beyond Vengeance (Columbia, 1966)


Second rate




 
 
Chuck Connors (left) was better known for his TV work, most notably of course for The Rifleman, which ran for five seasons on ABC, 1958 – 63, though he appeared in many other Western TV shows too. But he did the occasional big-screen oater as well, such as this mid-60s Columbia offering. The same may be said of director Bernard McEveety, well known for shows such as Gunsmoke, The Virginian, The Rebel, Cimarron Strip and so on, who also helmed the odd feature movie (he’d done one with Chuck the year before). He didn’t quite get the bigger picture. His bro Vincent (Firecreek) did a better job.

Ride Beyond Vengeance has a pretty standard (not to say threadbare) revenge plot. Buffalo hunter Jonas Trapp, aka El Tigre (Connors) is riding home to Coldiron, TX when he is set upon by three bad guys who brand him on the chest, steal the $17,000 he had saved in the last eleven years, and leave him for dead. Old-timer Paul Fix (there are other Rifleman cronies too) patches him up and of course once recovered, our hero swears vengeance.
 
Paul Fixes him up
 
The villains are fancy man derringer-wielder Johnsy-Boy (Bill Bixby, well before he achieved Hulkhood), half-crazed ranch foreman Coates (Western vet Claude Akins) and slightly more respectable (though not really) banker Brooks Durham (Michael Rennie). Chuck starts with Johnsy, branding him right back, and the fellow then shoots himself (we are told, not shown). One down and two to go.
 
Banker Rennie
 
Jonas had married Jessie (Kathryn Hays) before leaving but she wouldn’t go with him to hunt buffalo in Kansas (not surprisingly: it’s set in 1894 and I don’t think there were too many buff around by then). Now he comes back and equally unsurprisingly she doesn’t want him. He stinks and anyway, she is engaged (thinking herself a widow) - to none other than banker Durham.
 
She loves him, she loves him not, she loves him, oh hell, who cares?
 
Well, the plotline is tried and tested, not to say hackneyed. And it pans out as we might expect for a bit. The only real (minor) interest is whether Chuck will carry through his revenge plans to the end or see the light and spare someone. There are too many minor characters all over the place who confuse the issue. Screenplay author Andrew Fenady (future Chisum writer), who was adapting an Al Dewlen novel, should have pruned them. The likes of Joan Blondell and Gloria Grahame are wasted in parts that are not developed and there are too many sub-plots.

Max Baer’s brother Buddy is the saloon heavy. Chuck makes short work of him though. I’m glad he wasn’t pruned anyway.
 
Even the poster was poor
 
It’s one of those flashback movies. It opens in 1966 in a restaurant with barman Arthur O’Connell (I always think he looks like Frank Ferguson) telling census clerk James MacArthur the story, then the screen goes all blurry, you know how they do, in case we viewers are too dumb to understand it’s a flashback. So we see Chuck being branded and then as he lies there it goes blurry once again and we get a flashfurtherback to his courting of Jessie. Then it's fast forward again to 1894. At the end of the story we return to the diner in 1966 and the clerk wondering if it wasn’t all just a tall tale as he drives off. So there’s quite a lot of blurriness.
 
The buffalo hunter returns
 
Jonas is kind to his horse and strokes a cat while Johnsy has been cruel to the poor puss. You don’t need to be Umberto Eco to read the semiotics. All in all, though, Chuck is hardly the vengeful Tiger he is supposed to be, being too Lucas McCainish to convince.
 
Bixby is Hulkishly mean to cat...
 
...while Tiger Chuck is much nicer (that's his adopted dad advising him on the left)
 
The saloon brawl is quite good and creates a satisfactory amount of damage.

Though it seems pretty mild these days, it was all quite violent for the time, in a fashionable mid-60s way that foreshadowed spaghettism, but the trouble is that there isn’t much conviction in the cast. They appear to be going through the motions. Only Akins comes alive a bit later on when he becomes a drunk and slightly crazy, constantly talking to an imaginary friend whom he calls Whiskey Man, but he then goes to the other extreme, hamming it up.
 
Claude overdoes it
 
There are too many unconvincing studio shots and almost no location shooting.

It got lousy reviews at the time and I fear it hasn’t improved with age. If you skip it, dear e-pards, you won’t have missed much.

Shoulda stuck to TV
 


 

 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Westerns of Howard Hawks


The Grey Fox

Jeff Arnold’s West has looked at the Western careers of some of the greatest film directors, artists such as Francis Ford, John Ford, Henry Hathaway, Delmer Daves, Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah. Others will follow. Today it’s the turn of Howard Hawks.

Hawks (left) was perhaps the greatest Hollywood director never to win a Best Director Oscar (though he was given a consolatory honorary award in 1975 – by John Wayne). His friend and admirer John Ford generously suggested that he should have been recognized as best director, instead of Ford, for Sergeant York in 1941. Sergeant York was a fine film but it was perhaps Hawks’s bad luck that it came out the same year as Ford’s magnificent The Grapes of Wrath. For me, though, Hawks should have been a contender for Best Director for his 1948 picture Red River, a splendid film and one of the finest Westerns ever made. He wasn’t even nominated (Elia Kazan won it for Gentleman’s Agreement).

Hawks had an attractively no-nonsense style. His own definition of what makes a good movie was, "Three great scenes, no bad ones." He also defined a good director as "someone who doesn't annoy you.” This minimalist approach was sound and unpretentious. The Cahiers du Cinéma enthusiasts in France intellectualized his films in a way which amused him greatly. His Westerns were actioners. He said, “There's action only if there's danger.”
 
They got on
 
He really liked and esteemed John Wayne and made four of his six Westerns (the six that can be properly attributed to him) with Duke. He said, “John Wayne represents more force, more power, than anybody else on the screen”, adding that Duke “is underrated. He's an awfully good actor. He holds a thing together; he gives it a solidity and honesty, and he can make a lot of things believable.” He also said, “When [John Ford] was dying, we used to discuss how tough it was to make a good Western without [Wayne].” Hawks had a similar affection and respect for Walter Brennan.

Hawks was also good with women, unlike Ford. His female characters are often ‘just one of the guys’, as it were, and the term Hawksian Women has been used since. Joanne Dru’s Tess in Red River is a good example, or Angie Dickinson’s Feathers in Rio Bravo.

Early days

Howard Hawks’s love of the Western started early. He edited Paramount’s 1924 silent version of The Heritage of the Desert with Noah Beery and later the same year he was a production manager (uncredited) on the studio’s Jack Holt oater North of 36. The following year he was production manager on two more silent Zane Grey pictures, The Light of Western Stars, with both Holt and Beery, and The Code of the West. So he was learning the Western in his twenties.

In 1932 Hawks made it big by directing the talkie Scarface for producer Howard Hughes. Hawks’s first job helming a Western, though, was when he directed part of MGM’s Viva Villa! (1934) with Wallace Beery as Pancho Villa. It was quite a scandal: in November 1933, during location filming in Mexico, actor Lee Tracy is said to have got drunk and urinated from his hotel balcony onto a passing military parade. Tracy was arrested, fired from the film and replaced by Stuart Erwin, and Howard Hawks was also let go as director for refusing to testify against Tracy, and was replaced by Jack Conway, the credited director. However, in his autobiography, Charles G Clarke, the cinematographer on the picture, said that the incident never happened. Tracy, he said, was standing on the balcony watching the parade when a Mexican in the street below made an obscene gesture at him. Tracy replied in kind, and the next day a local newspaper printed a story that said, in effect, Tracy had insulted Mexicans, Mexico and the Mexican flag. The story caused an uproar in the country, and MGM decided to sacrifice Tracy and Hawks in order to be allowed to continue filming there. It was not an auspicious start to Hawks’s Western-directing career…
 
Actually a fine movie, tho' Hawks's input was minimal
 
Hawks was, however, credited director on the Samuel Goldwyn production Barbary Coast, released by United Artists, the following year. It’s a melodramatic tale of crime in California starring Edward G Robinson and Miriam Hopkins (who couldn’t stand each other) with a young Joel McCrea as ingénu - and Brennan as old-timer. Hawks did a good job of creating an almost Dickensian fog-bound waterfront but much of the acting left something to be desired. William Wyler is said to have directed certain scenes.
 
Good cast!
 
The Outlaw

There was then a Western pause in Hawks’s career while he concentrated on other genres (he was one of Hollywood’s most versatile directors) and he next pops up in the West on the hilariously bad Billy the Kid picture The Outlaw, shot at the turn of the decade but not released till 1943. Hawks is also said to have written quite a lot of it.

However, it wasn’t entirely Hawks’s fault that the picture was dire: it was another Howard Hughes production and Hughes fired Hawks after only two weeks, taking over himself, so it was Hughes who was responsible for the salacious and lurid aspects of it. It all seems very tame to us today but at the time it was hyped as a sex drama and busty Jane Russell dominated the posters (often Jack Buetel, as the title Billy, didn’t even feature). The acting was excruciating, especially Thomas Mitchell as a ludicrous Pat Garrett, the very weak Buetel and an absurdly miscast Walter Huston as Doc Holliday (don’t ask what Doc Holliday was doing in a Billy picture).
 
Trashy
 
So far, it must be said, Howard Hawks’s Western career was not exactly stellar…

Red River

But all that was put behind him when in 1948 Red River was finally released. It was filmed back in ’46 but there were many delays. Hawks wanted endless editing and there was also an absurd claim by Howard Hughes that the picture was similar to The Outlaw (it was nothing like it; for one thing, Red River was good). If anything, the plot was a Western Mutiny on the Bounty, as writer Borden Chase admitted. In any case, the picture wasn’t released until August 1948, after John Ford’s Fort Apache, shot afterwards, in late ‘47.
 
Friend and colleague - and slight rival - John Ford
 
Ford does seem to have had some input to Red River. Tag Gallagher, in his book John Ford: The Man and his Films (University of California Press, 1984), suggests that Ford assisted Hawks on the set and made numerous editing suggestions, including the use of a narrator. It may have been so. Certainly Ford wrote to Hawks asking him to “take care of my boy Duke” (John Wayne was of course starring for Hawks). Hawks did say that he often thought of Ford when shooting, particularly in a burial scene when ominous clouds started to gather. Hawks told Ford, "Hey, I've got one almost as good as you can do - you better go and see it."

Wayne is supremely good in Red River, playing the alpha-male Thomas Dunson who founds a cattle empire but as he ages he has to face the rebellion of his adopted son Matt Garth (Montgomery Clift in his debut). As Wayne would do for Ford in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, he played an older man with great skill. The role was first offered to Gary Cooper but he turned it down because the ruthlessness of the character wouldn’t suit his screen image.
 
Duke magnificent in Red River
 
Visually, the film is stunning. Hawks had first wanted the great Gregg Toland as cinematographer but Hawks and Russell Harlan did a superb job, shooting the splendid Arizona locations in a glowing black & white.

The movie was the third biggest grossing film of the year (fortunately, because budgeted at half a million dollars, it cost more than double that) and is nowadays, justly, ranked #5 on the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest Westerns of all time.

The Big Sky

There’s no doubt that Red River was Howard Hawks’s greatest Western but his next, The Big Sky (RKO, 1952), was also a big production, and very popular. Based on the famous novel by AB Guthrie Jr., it was the last of three pictures written for Hawks by Dudley Nichols, one of John Ford’s regulars, and it is an early Western, telling of trappers and fur traders and their conflict with Indians in the 1830s. Hawks first wanted Marlon Brando for the lead part of Jim Deakins but Brando wanted too much money and the director got Kirk Douglas, who had debuted in a Western rather tentatively the year before in the Raoul Walsh-directed Along the Great Divide and had, rather unwillingly, done another Western-ish picture earlier the same year as the Hawks movie, The Big Trees, directed by Felix Feist. Douglas was far from a big Western star at the time. He brought energy to the part, though. He was in any case better than Brando would have been; Brando was hopeless in Westerns.
 
Not that big
 
The Big Sky is not a superb Western, it is fair to say, and it is slow in parts. At 140 minutes originally it was too ponderous and it was cut on re-release to a more manageable length. But it is beautifully photographed – once more by Russell Harlan in black and white – and some of the support acting is terrific, notably Oscar-nominated Arthur Hunnicutt, who also narrates.

At any rate, Hawks now had two big Westerns to his name and was established as one of the genre’s important directors.

Rio Bravo

At the end of the 50s Hawks came out with another big, commercial Western, this time in color, Warner Brothers’ Rio Bravo. It was back to John Wayne. In 1959 Duke was rather preoccupied with setting up his own mega-project The Alamo but he found time to do a Western for Hawks and one (The Horse Soldiers) for Ford.

Rio Bravo is great fun. Quentin Tarantino has said that if he started getting interested in a girl he would show her Rio Bravo. And she better like it… It has no Fordian artistry about it. Though directed by Hawks and co-starring Walter Brennan, it was no Red River either. It was a classic, commercial Western of straightforward design, and it was a box-office blast. It had them waiting in lines all round the block to get in. Hawks once said, “If you want to make pictures and enjoy making them, you better go out and make something that a lot of people want to see.” He sure got it right this time.
 
Cast and crew
 
Wayne is his usual leathery self, spinning his Winchester to cock it. I love his short jacket and calf-length pants and that hat has to be one of the best ever (Wayne had worn it since Stagecoach).

It’s a hugely enjoyable film, full of color and corn, and none the worse for that. It has a splendid final shoot out. It’s juvenile, predictable and full of clichés but it’s a real Western with zip and pzazz and you have to love it. High Noon it ain’t but they can’t all be works of art with political messages. Hawks said, “I never made a message picture, and I hope I never do.” He didn’t even like High Noon. “I didn't think a good sheriff was going to go running around town like a chicken with his head off asking for help, and finally his Quaker wife had to save him. That isn't my idea of a good western sheriff.” In fact, Rio Bravo was a kind of riposte to High Noon. Wayne had also disliked the Gary Cooper picture, in which the marshal had thrown the sheriff's star in the dirt. It was un-American, he thought. Law 'n' order must be respected. In his version, the sheriff obstinately retains his badge and wins out over the bad guys against all the odds, with the help of some townspeople, but essentially by his own bravado and by bossing his minions around.

This was the late 50s and early 60s when no Western was complete without a pop singer. Ricky Nelson looks about 12 though he was 18. He can’t sing worth a damn compared to Dean Martin but they make a decent duo with ‘My rifle, pony and me’ (the tune was used in Red River), with Walter Brennan’s harmonica obligato. Luckily Wayne (“Singin’ Sandy”, remember?) didn’t have to join in.

The auteuriste Europeans read huge amounts into Rio Bravo, which made Hawks laugh. Jean-Luc Godard wrote, "The great filmmakers always tie themselves down by complying with the rules of the game. … Take, for example, the films of Howard Hawks, and in particular 'Rio Bravo'. That is a work of extraordinary psychological insight and aesthetic perception, but Hawks has made his film so that the insight can pass unnoticed without disturbing the audience that has come to see a Western like all the others." Well, he could be right, I guess. Oh look, there goes a flying pig.

El Dorado

Hawks made two more Westerns, at the tail-end of the 60s. In fact his last ever movies were Westerns. They weren’t quite as good as the previous ones but are still more than watchable. El Dorado in 1969 was pretty well a remake of Rio Bravo, but this time for Paramount. Wayne was back, so that sold tickets, but it had less of the charm of the previous movie. This time Robert Mitchum took the Dean Martin part of alcoholic deputy and the Ricky Nelson role was taken by a young James Caan. And, back from the The Big Sky, Arthur Hunnicutt takes Brennan’s crusty old-timer part.
 
In the chair
 
Mercifully, they cut out the jailhouse scene where, copying Dino/Brennan in Rio Bravo, Mitchum sings accompanied by Hunnicutt on harmonica. It was because Hawks’s son said, “A sheriff shouldn’t sing.” Astute.

The opening credits feature a series of nice original Remingtonesque paintings that depict various scenes of cowboy life. The artist was Olaf Wieghorst, who appears in the film as the gunsmith, Swede Larsen.

El Dorado isn’t bad and it was again a box-office hit but to be brutally honest Wayne was looking his age a bit and isn’t very credible as the fastest gun in the West.

Rio Lobo

Writer Leigh Brackett had done Rio Bravo and had been obliged by Hawks and Wayne to plagiarize herself on El Dorado. Now the poor woman was made to do it yet again in 1970 with Rio Lobo. Hawks said, “When you find out a thing that goes pretty well, you might as well do it again.”
 
You might as well do it again

Robert Mitchum turned it down. After reading the script, he said it was "an even bigger piece of crap than El Dorado." I fear he was right. Hawks himself was honest about it. “I didn’t think it was any good,” he said. A perceptive man, Hawks. Never mind. It does have saving graces. There’s a lively sub-Rio Bravo shoot-out at the end. There’s some nice William Clothier photography of Mexico and Old Tucson locations, and quite a stirring Jerry Goldsmith score (and lovely guitar music over the titles). And there’s a good performance by cranky old Jack Elam with his shotgun, doing his Walter Brennan act (actually, he was a decade younger than Wayne).

It wasn’t a glorious end to the Western career of Howard Hawks but we should remember him for Rio Bravo, The Big Sky and, in particular, for Red River.

Perhaps because Hawks was so versatile, he didn’t become a ‘Western director’ in the way that, say, John Ford did. But Western lovers will watch a Hawks film with enjoyment, and they will get not art, necessarily (many of them don’t want that anyway) but straight-down-the-line, well-made entertainment. He famously said, “I'm a storyteller--that's the chief function of a director. And they're moving pictures, let's make 'em move!”